Hail, Caesar! (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
15Feb/160

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

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Eddie Mannix is stressed on time and wearing thin.  He's been a Hollywood fixer for years trying to keep the stars shining when their private lives would add a bit of dirt.  When one of his stars goes missing his skills are needed just as a new career beckons his name.  The Coen Brothers direct and write Hail, Caesar! and stars Josh Brolin, George Clooney, and Alden Ehrenreich.

Time for some gaietyGoing into a new Coen Brothers comedy with diminished expectations has done me a world of good in appreciating them.  They aren't immediately hilarious and while the jokes elicit a decent number of belly laughs I always felt dissatisfied afterward.  More than their dramatic films, Coen Brothers comedies need an incubation period while my mind accumulates more knowledge until I have a "Eureka!" moment.

No such period of incubation is going to be necessary for Hail, Ceasar!  Under the glitz and stylistic panache of the Coens getting to flirt with an assortment of old Hollywood styles is a simple moral tale about trying to do the right thing.  The Coen's version of Eddie Mannix deserves a spot alongside Marge Gunderson and The Dude as a spiritual compass of goodness.  He may not have the penchant for legal justice of the former or the nonchalant good vibes of the latter but as a man trying to do the right thing in a complicated system Mannix is a treat.

Our first glimpse of Mannix quietly sets the stage for his moral crisis.  He's attending confession at roughly 4 in the morning which, as the terribly patient priest can tell, means he's a man whose conscience ways heavy on him.  Hail, Caesar! is set before Vatican II, when Catholic guilt was as damning a mark any religion could muster.  The Coens reinforce his internal ethical struggle in subtle ways, watching Mannix pay quiet respect to the trinity of crosses, and trying to respect the privacy of his clients while at the same time keeping himself a fixture in their lives.

Josh Brolin's best performance comes as the quietly struggling but always professional Eddie Mannix.

Josh Brolin's best performance comes as the quietly struggling but always professional Eddie Mannix.

The best scene emphasizing his quiet existential struggle comes when he meets a Lockheed Martin representative in a Chinese restaurant.  Deep red walls frame the solid blue circle of fish floating as Mannix looks at a photograph of a nuclear explosion.  Josh Brolin, in one of the most stunning of subtle shifts, loses something in his eyes looking at that photo.  His business may seem empty and immoral at times, but to go work for a company which creates bombs which can vaporize people instantly - well, why do anything?

Hail, Caesar! sort of addresses the absurdity of even trying with its very setup.  We've got a fictionalized take on a real man whose job was to protect the image of the stars so audiences might see some truth to the characters they play.  Brolin's performance keeps the moral wheels turning even when Channing Tatum shows up to sing, first with some sadness then excitement, "No Dames."  It's the way Brolin shifts his weight to signal to a subordinate that what he's going to say is in confidence, or the extra beat between words when he tells his wife about the new job he's unsure about, and then those frequent confessions where he sounds for all the world like the three cigarettes he hid from his wife really are going to send him to hell.

His work is one of the most subtle of existential crises I've seen, and it's hiding among the panache of old Hollywood.  What makes Hail, Caesar! so reassuring is the way the Coens quote themselves to give an idea of where Mannix will be at the end.  One shot begins in the dark with little specs of light like A Serious Man - but where A Serious Man followed those specs into an unrelenting realization that no religion can prepare for inexplicable horror, Hail, Caesar! follows those same specs into a lavish production of smiling women swimming in unison.  Taken on its own, the musical swimming sequence gives form to the formless but as a rebuke to A Serious Man it provides an example of meaning through storytelling instead of storytelling papering over the lack of meaning.

Some of the shot within shot elements of Hail, Caesar! are startling in their slow reveal.

Some of the shot within shot elements of Hail, Caesar! are startling in their slow reveal.

What furthers the pure necessity of storytelling is in my favorite subplot involving George Clooney as Brad Whitlock, the actor whose kidnapping sets off Hail, Caesar!  He is taken to meet a cabal of intelligentsia debating Communism which Whitlock takes an unusual shine to.  In my favorite moment Brolin grabs Clooney, slaps him, and with the first hint of rage tells him it's not about the means of production or any intellectual system when he's got a good boss and gets to bring food home.  For someone like myself, who likes academia but has long felt the merits of theorizing reach a threshold of usefulness, fretting about neoliberalism and capitalism won't help the person who needs hope and food to get by.  This moment was a refreshing tonic, reminding me that criticism is great but I shouldn't forget who these movies appeal to at their best.

This strand of basic pragmatic goodness of not talking down to the common man is all throughout Hail, Caesar!  When Scarlett Johansson's DeeAnna Moran finds a new object of infatuation he's - hilariously - a "professional person" played by Jonah Hill, who takes the hits so the stories can continue rolling on.  She's literally intoxicated by his dedication to normalcy and structure.  Then there's the almost too-sweet Alden Ehrenreich whose claim to fame is also his working class roots.  He's so successful precisely because he doesn't talk down to anybody and he likes to sing sweet songs when he's not practicing rope tricks.  All of this leads back to Mannix whose core decency keeps everyone else moving along with life.

I felt an honest-to-whatever sense of spiritual fulfillment coming out of Hail, Caesar!  When religion and spirituality get invoked in movies we usually hear silence or see the divine coming down to deal out punishment or enlightenment.  In Hail, Caesar! it's all up to Mannix to decide what he wants and believes, because the God whose scenes are still waiting to be shot isn't talking.  But, as the devil is in the details, so God must also be.  The sense of cheer comes from watching a man search the darkness and come back with a hint of light.  If we get to see beautiful Soviet propaganda in the mean time, so be it.

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Tail - Hail, Caesar!Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Screenplay written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, and Alden Ehrenreich.

Posted by Andrew

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